Image above: illustration by Julia Rothman
When I emailed Grace and told her that I was thinking of devoting this week’s Past & Present to Vera Neumann, her response was (and I’m quoting here), “VVVVVEEEERRRRRAAA.” So yeah, we might have a wee Vera obsession and since Grace and I are heading to Atlanta on Friday for the Lavish conference — and Atlanta just happens to be the headquarters of the Vera company — it seemed fitting that we take a look at this American designer and entrepreneur.
Image above: Vera in “New Ways with Wallpaper,” Life Magazine, 1958.
Although Vera is known for her iconic scarves that became hugely popular in the 60s (even Marilyn Monroe was a fan — she posed with a Vera scarf in her photo shoot for Vogue just before her death), Vera got her start by creating housewares. One of four children growing up in Stamford, Connecticut, Vera was encouraged to be artistic. Her father would pay her fifty cents to fill a sketchbook! She went to Cooper-Union and the Traphagen School of Design and gravitated toward textile design. She was initially thrilled to get a job straight out of school but balked at being asked to blatantly copy the work of other designers.
Image above: White House Sun Room in 1952, after the reconstruction decorated by Vera (via White House Museum).
Vera quit her design job. And while working as a freelance designer for children’s fabrics and murals, she met her future husband, George Neumann. George came from a textile design family and was incredibly supportive of Vera’s ambitions. After the couple married in 1938, they built a small silkscreen to fit on a kitchen table in their tiny New York apartment. The only things small enough to silkscreen were placemats, so that’s where they started.
Image above: Square Dance Sail Cloth, c. 1945–1955, from the collection at the Museum of Modern Art.
Vera’s transition from housewares to scarves came out of necessity. During World War II, she had difficulty sourcing linen but discovered an abundance of parachute silk at her local army supply store. The well-known Vera logo was created because, as part of the process of silkscreening her paintings onto the scarves, her signature transferred as well. The scarves were an instant success and by the 1970s, Vera’s kitchen table business had grown to a $100 million international business.
CLICK HERE for more Vera (including a mini roundup of fun Vera designs!)
Image above: Vera painting, from The Vera Company.
Not only was Vera a talented designer, but she was also a licensing pioneer. By 1972, her designs were sold in 20,000 stores around the world. With everything from sportswear to housewares, she was arguably the first true lifestyle brand.
The Vera Company continues to see that Vera’s designs make it out into the world and just last year, the company did a fantastic collaboration with Anthropologie. You can also find some great pillows on Etsy made out of graphic Vera scarves. Here are just a few of my favorite Vera items — at the top of my list is the new Vera book by Susan Seid, which would be a fantastic gift if you know any Vera fans. (Hmmmm . . . I think I know what is going under the tree for Grace!)
Image above: 1. Shadow Play Pillowcase, $19.95 (on sale from $68); 2. Lofty Larks Wallpaper, $88; 3. Vera Neumann Striped Napkin Pillow, $38; 4. Vera Brushed Blossom Umbrella, $35; 5. Vera: The Art and Life of an Icon, $23.10; 6. Bertram Chair, Vera Bubbles, $849.95 (on sale from $1,598)